What should we do about green energy”

Windmills

Photo by Tyler Casey on Unsplash

By Scott Hamilton

Over the last decade or more there has been a push by global governments toward an initiative they refer to as green energy. Over the last two weeks we learned that there is no simple meaning of “green” energy and covered some of the real benefits of green energy. This week I plan to cover some of the things we can do about the green energy initiatives on a personal level.

I would like to start with my experience in attempting an off-grid life style. Five years ago my family built an off-grid A-frame cabin in the woods outside of Edgar Springs, MO. We lived off grid utilizing solar power for cooking, heating water, and cooling the home in the summer. We heated the home through the winter with wood heat. The off-grid life style is definitely not for everyone. There were several occasions when the weather was not cooperative and we had to resort to a gasoline generator to keep the lights on and the refrigerator cold, but it was nice knowing that we could survive if necessary without conventional electric service.

The problems started about size months into the project of living off grid. Our power inverter, which converted the 48 volts DC from the solar panels to the standard 120 volts AC that runs all the appliances and lighting in the house broke down. We were told by the manufacturer that it would have to be shipped back for repair and had a three to six week turn around time. A power inverter is one of the more expensive components in a solar system at around $5000. We could not afford to buy a secondary inverter for backup and that is when we decided to connect our off-grid “green” home to the power grid.

Over the course of the last five years, that same inverter has failed a total of three times, the last time it was out of warranty and non-repairable. We have replaced our battery bank at year four, at a $4000 price tag and are currently in the process of replacing the inverter. Needless to say, you don’t go “green” to save money on your power bill. We are in at a full price of $26,000 over the last six years to save $250 a month on our electric bill ($18,000). We will likely break even if the current batteries and inverter last four more years, but I doubt we will ever be ahead. Solar companies like to sell you on green energy as a cost savings measure meant to save you money on your power bill, but from my experience you are lucky if you break even.

So if cost savings is not a motivator for going “green” what is? For me and my family it was all about energy independence. We wanted to make sure we were able to generate the power we needed to survive in the event of an emergency. The good news that there are other things you can do in relation to “green” energy that both help the environment and save money in the long run. These are related to passive energy savings techniques rather than active systems.

The first of these passive things we can do is to increase the insulation in our homes. The better insulated a home is the less it costs to heat and cool. This improves both your budget, and reduces the amount of fossil fuels and carbon created to keep you comfortable. The second is to increase the thermal mass in your home. This is normally done by replacing interior walls and floors with heavier materials that hold a constant temperature. One to the big things they do in hotter climates is to build terracotta walls. These walls have interesting thermal properties that allow them to stay cool in the summer daytime heat, and warm in the cold nights. You might say the heavier your home, inside the insulation barrier is, the more constant you can keep the temperature.

Adding thermal mass to an existing home can get expensive fast, and may not pay for itself for a number of years, but in new construction it is fairly easy to add that thermal mass. Passive homes cost on average 15% more to construct than a conventional home and the cost difference is easily paid back in energy savings within the first few years. One of the best ways to build a passive home is to use insulated concrete forms (ICF) in the construction. Homes constructed with ICF technologies have the advantages of both insulation and thermal mass combined as the ICF provides a solid insulation barrier for the home and the concrete poured into the ICF provides thermal mass to keep the home a constant temperature.

I had the opportunity to visit an ICF home under construction a few years ago in early January. The home did not yet have any heating source and the temperature outside was in the mid twenties. The construction of the exterior walls and doors had been completed in early August when the outside temperatures were in the upper nineties. These August temperatures had heated the thermal mass of the home to a comfortable mid seventies temperature and several months later the interior temperature of the home was still in the lower seventies.

So to answer the question what can we do about the green energy initiatives? I would say do what you can to improve the efficiency of your home, whether that be installing better windows and doors, adding additional insulation, or replacing wood and paneling walls and floors with ceramic tile to increase thermal mass. Speaking from experience if you want to save on your energy bills go with passive improvements to your home over spending the same money on solar or alternative energy. Until next week stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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